Matthew Norman: While Brown sinks, Mandelson rides the crest of a wave

The First Secretary of State is teasing us about his indestructibility

Related Topics

Mamma Mia, there he goes again. A year after paying personal homage to the Abba movie with a Greek island idyll of his own, Peter Mandelson is back on Corfu. It's classic Mandy. No other frontline politician would revisit the scene of an episode that threatened to destroy him. Who else has the Olympian chutzpah, during a brutal recession, to remind us of superyachts and oligarchs, and dark insinuations of dodgy dealings over the Beluga and Kristal?

When the story broke, initially it seemed the fighter would have to quit for good. He had received his second, and final, public warning a decade ago on being resigned over his involvement with plutocrats (the Hindujas), and, as grapple fans will recall, a third of those means permanent disqualification.

And then, with a little help from his friend Nat Rothschild – his host again this week – he slipped George Osborne's Boston Crab, flipped the Shadow Chancellor over his shoulder, gently placed a knee to his throat and had the Bullingdon Brawler squealing in submission. Perhaps, on reflection, this is why Lord M has gone back to Corfu: to remind his party how nimbly he turned the tables on the Tories when he was the rank underdog, the creature to which he now routinely compares Labour.

No one better understands the power of subliminal political messaging. Maybe also he's coquettishly teasing us about his own indestructibility. He knows he could be filmed live emerging from the Bank of England vaults with treasury notes stuffed into a bag marked "SWAG", and a grinning TV audience would appreciatively murmur, "That Mandy, eh? What a character the old rogue is". And he wants us to know that he knows.

Whether he means to use his colossal strength to oust Gordon Brown in October, the likely time of maximum danger for the PM and last possible moment for a pre-election putsch, or wait until after the election to challenge for the leadership, remains opaque. But the clues are all there. In recent days we've seen Jack Straw change the law to enable life peers to switch to the Commons without fuss; a brace of Sunday paper reports about his leadership intentions; former chief whip Hilary Armstrong, who has an ultra-safe seat in the North East to bequeath, supporting him; Harriet Harman giving that American cliché "dream ticket" an airing by also talking him up; and William Rees-Mogg (not always a soothsayer who speaks the utmost sooth, but a commentator of heft all the same) treating the notion of Premier Mandelson seriously.

In the absence of violent reaction to this speculation are contained two extraordinary things. The first is that the notion of PM as PM creates very little visceral horror within the party, media (with one or two exceptions) and public. Even by the standards of Bob Monkhouse Syndrome by Proxy, whereby the most reviled national characters inevitably come into vogue if they hang around long enough, this is some transformation.

The second, of course, is that an openly gay prime minister now appears acceptable to the country. Remembering his fierce fight to remain in the closet, there's a weeny irony in this one. But, in making the shattering of the last great glass ceiling imaginable, he may already have done more to promote equality than the gay campaigners who once sought to out him.

On his ambitions, the First Secretary of State, etc, etc, is unusually reticent. Yesterday I tried to tease a statement from this gifted hoofer before he treats Corfu's most exclusive nightclub to his "Dancing Queen". He sidestepped the question, emailing only that he will spend his hols doing community work in a local orphanage.

If this new mastery of self-parody is a valuable tactical weapon in seducing the public, others in the arsenal are more destructive. He could, to cite just one, remove Gordon Brown by deploying a nuclear resignation. Not his own, of course, because the Heseltinian doctrine about crowns and assassins holds good. But he has all the codes, and having persuaded David Miliband not to quit in May, he could easily unpersuade him in October. Assuming the polls remain hideous, and that a wretched party conference provokes a fresh eruption of despair, the hapless Foreign Secretary might leave the Cabinet "in the interests of the party". The tears welling up, Mandelson would tell Gordon that he can do no more to save him, and he'd be gone within hours. Ms Armstrong, one of the Blairite cabal of whom Mandy is undisputed leader, could then give up her seat. His lordship could renounce his lordship, be back in the Commons within the month, and Prime Minister by Christmas.

If fretful ministers and backbenchers do finally conclude they'd rather not go down meekly with the ship, he has only one serious rival. But Alan Johnson, charming Minder extra though he is, lacks the ruthlessness and gumption, as, to the nth degree, does David Miliband. James Purnell is too weedy and callow, Straw too bland and sneaky, Harman too overtly power-hungry and, as her nonsense this week confirms, politically dim. As prospective Prime Ministers go, this lot are less than pygmies. They're Munchkins.

Mandelson, meanwhile, has mutated from Wicked Witch of the West into Good Witch Glinda, and with the party marooned in a scarily alien electoral world, a friend of Dorothy is required to safeguard those ruby slippers and ensure that New Labour finds its way home.

Like that Kansan tornado, the man is a force of nature. He cannot be diverted, let alone stopped. Much the biggest box-office draw in British politics, he has developed what Francis Urquhart – surely his prime ministerial template – called bottom. Wherever I go these days, be it pub, back of a cab or steam room at the Turkish baths, those who not long ago would rail about him in the least elegant of language now nod sagely and say that he is the only minister they trust on the economy, in much the way they talk of Kenneth Clarke and Vince Cable.

That he wants the job is in little doubt. Apart from the happy confluence of those Sunday newspaper stories, Ms Harman's backing, Ms Armstrong's handy hint and Mr Straw's constitutional amendment, a few weeks ago Mandelson told a parliamentary gallery lunch that there is no chance of Britain joining the euro for untold years. There could be no more blatant a piece of strategic repositioning, designed to neutralise the weakness that is his Europhilia, than that. Smoothly and surely, he is laying the ground to strike in October should Gordon's grip further weaken. If he waits until next summer, the resistance of the trade union portion of the electoral college might well be fatal. But so close to an election, and regardless of the most recent precedent, a swift coronation makes far more sense than weeks of internecine poison.

I am not saying that this will happen, or even that it is likely, merely that it is possible. Peter Mandelson could, if the cards fall right, be our Prime Minister before the year is out. If the Labour movement has an ounce of survivalist sense left, he will be. He is its best, and probably only, hope of averting the cataclysm. After all, as the song almost goes, how can we resist him?

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Finance Director

£65000 - £80000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Finance Director required to jo...

Recruitment Genius: Medico-Legal Assistant

£15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a unique opportunity fo...

Ashdown Group: (PHP / Python) - Global Media firm

£50000 per annum + 26 days holiday,pension: Ashdown Group: A highly successful...

The Jenrick Group: Quality Inspector

£27000 per annum + pension + holidays: The Jenrick Group: A Quality Technician...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Should parents be allowed to take pictures at nativity plays?  

Ghosts of Christmas past: What effect could posting pictures of nativity plays have on the next generation?

Ellen E Jones
The first Christmas card: in 1843 the inventor Sir Henry Cole commissioned the artist John Callcott Horsley to draw a card for him to send to family and friends  

Hold your temperance: New life for the first Christmas card

Simmy Richman
The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

The 12 ways of Christmas

We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

The male exhibits strange behaviour

A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef creates an Italian-inspired fish feast for Christmas Eve

Bill Granger's Christmas Eve fish feast

Bill's Italian friends introduced him to the Roman Catholic custom of a lavish fish supper on Christmas Eve. Here, he gives the tradition his own spin…
Liverpool vs Arsenal: Brendan Rodgers is fighting for his reputation

Rodgers fights for his reputation

Liverpool manager tries to stay on his feet despite waves of criticism
Amir Khan: 'The Taliban can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'

Amir Khan attacks the Taliban

'They can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'
Michael Calvin: Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick